OD&D and Outdoor Survival

One of the most common misconceptions I’ve seen about the original Dungeons & Dragons is that it tells players to use the Avalon Hill board game Outdoor Survival to handle wilderness exploration (in the same way, perhaps, that it recommends Chainmail for handling combat encounters). Strictly speaking, this is not true; the passage only says to use the board from that game as a map for wilderness adventures, but does not say to use any of its rules. However, it’s entirely possible that original D&D wilderness exploration procedure does indeed take specific influence from the Outdoor Survival ruleset. In this post, I’m going to closely read these rulesets to see what relationship may exist besides what is explicitly stated.

OD&D’s Wilderness Adventures

The adventuring party moves around a hex map to explore the wilderness and claim territory for themselves. Each turn represents a day of travel, where each mode of transport (e.g. on foot or on horseback) affords a different number of hexes traversed per day. However, some hex tiles are more expensive to cross than others, such as forests costing 2 move points and mountains costing 3 move points. This means that a party traveling by wagon, having 4 move points per day, can pass through 4 plains hexes, 2 forest hexes, or 1 mountain hex per day. The party must rest for one day per week, and also carries rations which last 1 week; this implies that whereas the day is the atomic unit of action, the week is the cycle in which 6 day-turns occur. Each day, the referee rolls to see if the party encounters monsters or becomes lost; the likelihood of either event depends on the party’s current hex.

Less importantly, “the greatest distance” across each hex is 5 miles, but this does not really matter because all move rates are given in hexes and the exploration process is entirely abstracted by the game board. This is very much in line with OD&D in general, which cares less about in-world (fictional) distance than abstract tabletop distance. The main distinguishing feature is that, since wilderness exploration is played using a specific game board, it does not have any need for the rulers used in combat and dungeon exploration.

I point all this out because a certain blog post by my friend Dwiz supposes that the hex in OD&D is an arbitrary overlay on a world map. In actuality, the abstract hex is the basis of all movement and play, and the designation of them being 5 miles wide is merely an in-world rationalization of the hexes rather than their basis. The rates of movement which appear in Greyhawk and subsequent editions of classic D&D, given in miles, indeed only consider hexes as an afterthought secondary to in-game positioning, but this is a deviation from the hex’s original centrality in the game. Also, as described above, OD&D actually has different movement costs for more or less difficult terrain—described in terms of hexes! Overall, OD&D is much closer to what Dwiz calls “Version B” of hex crawls where hexes are discrete tiles of game-world content, rather than “Version A” where hexes are arbitrary divisions laid on top of a non-abstract world map.

The above summary is pretty sufficient to compare with Outdoor Survival, though it is still worthwhile to explain how exactly OD&D uses Outdoor Survival’s game board as a map. For one, the hexes and their terrain are all used basically as they appear except with a change in scale. Terrain penalties for movement are carried over, but they are defined in the text itself (probably so that the reader does not need the Outdoor Survival rules to play OD&D). More “radical” is that OD&D reinterprets certain features on the map to match its particular pseudo-medieval setting: catch basins become castles and buildings become towns. This is all we learn of Outdoor Survival and how it was used in OD&D. But how was it originally meant to be played, as published?

Outdoor Survival

Similar to OD&D, Outdoor Survival is not one but multiple rulesets or even minigames. Before talking about individual game scenarios, I’ll go over the mechanics common to each one. Each player controls a person attempting to traverse and survive the outdoors, as represented by the hex map provided with the game. Each hex represents 5 km or 3 miles, approximately the distance that one can travel in an hour.

Initially, a figure can move up to 6 hexes. However, different terrain types have different “costs” in order for the figure to enter the hex, e.g., up to 4 in the case of swamps. The direction of travel is usually random unless the figure is following a trail; in the latter case, whether they must go in a straight line or are allowed to make one turn, or whether they are allowed to pick their direction of travel, depends on the result of their “direction ability roll” (specific to each scenario, see below).

Figures also become less capable as the game progresses due to stressors like hunger and thirst, as well as due to random events. This is measured by the figure’s current “life level”, from A to O. Life level worsens as the figure becomes progressively hungry or thirsty (decreasing at an even faster rate the hungrier or thirstier a figure is). At life level J, the character only has one movement point per turn; at life level L, they have no movement points are all and are basically good as dead unless they receive help.

The character becomes generally thirsty (i.e. their “water index” goes down) when they do not end their turn on a river or catch basin, and generally becomes hungry when they do not end their turn on a food hex; however, each scenario also has specific rules for hunger and water. Thirst is more dangerous than hunger since it takes less thirst than hunger to decrease one’s life level; i.e., the water index range is shorter than the food index range.

Having discussed the basic aspects of a player-figure, the turn order for each player is:

  1. Determine direction of travel.
  2. Traverse as many hexes as possible.
  3. Decrease water and/or food indices if applicable.
  4. Optionally, check for a random event.

If the table opts into random events, a die is rolled at the end of each turn. On a result of 5-6, the player gets to pick which event type they would like to experience: a natural hazard, a wildlife encounter, or a personal event. The specific events under each category are specific to scenarios, but generally the player is weighing the likelihood of three outcomes: increasing or decreasing their food/water index, losing a life level, or nothing happening at all.

Having discussed the base mechanics of Outdoor Survival, we can look at individual scenarios.

Scenario 1: Lost

This is the simplest scenario, where players are hikers trying to find their way out of the wilderness (i.e. move off the playing board) before they die of thirst and hunger. The direction ability chart is forgiving, having a 50% chance of allowing the player to choose their direction of travel. Food and water are extremely simple, relying upon the player ending their turn in an appropriate tile in order to avoid hunger or thirst respectively.

Scenario 2: Survival

This scenario is basically a more difficult version of the first one, requiring players to move specifically off the west side of the map in order to win. This time, there is only a 2-in-6 chance that a player can choose their direction, and a 3-in-6 chance that they must move in a straight line in some random direction. Hunger and thirst can now be “healed” by spending three turns on a food or water tile; doing so restores 3 food index points or 1 water index points, respectively (this sounds very slow).

Players have to find a missing person located on the map, having to search between 7 sites placed randomly on the playing board; the first player to find the missing person out of these 7 sites wins. Movement is even more punishing here, with only a 1-in-6 chance that players can pick their direction of travel. Hunger can progress or be “healed” in the same way as the previous scenario, but water is slightly different: players have a 2-in-6 chance of not becoming thirsty on a non-water tile, and can restore 1 water index in only two turns of waiting.

Scenario 4: Rescue

Again, a more difficult version of the third scenario: now not only must players find a missing person (of which there are now as many as there are players), but also escort them out of the wilderness. There is a 0-in-6 chance of choosing your direction of travel, and instead there is just a 50-50 chance of being able to make one directional turn after rolling for direction (perhaps the inspiration for a similar rule in OD&D that a lost party can correct their course by 1 hex).

Figures no longer experience thirst except by random events, and they now have a 2-in-6 chance of finding food on a non-food tile; they also need only wait 1 turn on a food tile to restore 1 food index point.

Scenario 5: Pursue

This is a two-player scenario, where one acts as the pursuer and the other as the escapee. Each figure has a different direction ability table: the pursuer has a 3-in-6 chance of choosing their own direction of travel, while the escapee has only a 1-in-6 chance. The escapee wins if they move off the playing board, while the pursuer wins if they capture the escapee first. Hunger and thirst do not progress except by random events, though it is still possible to “heal” either by standing on a food or water tile.

Outdoor Survival and OD&D

There is nothing that OD&D as written borrows from Outdoor Survival that it does not explicitly say it borrows: namely, the hex map and the movement penalties (although even these differ from Outdoor Survival). The central game loop of the game, balancing one’s food and thirst while wandering aimlessly in the wild, does not survive in OD&D which instead seems to emphasize player agency as they choose their course and interact with a (somewhat) more fleshed-out world—especially one inhabited by other intelligent beings. Outdoor Survival on the other hand involves barely any player agency or strategy, similar to board games like Monopoly or The Game of Life where players mostly just respond to random events outside of their control.

OD&D does not really have an analogy for the life level system in Outdoor Survival. Players do purchase rations and waterskins for their characters, the former always tracked in weeks (as opposed to days, which is more common in later rulesets). This seems to imply that a week’s rations are consumed as a unit after concluding a week-cycle of wilderness adventuring, in the same way it seems that six torches seem to be consumed throughout an hour-cycle of underworld adventuring (my favorite conspiracy theory). This means that checking each day if a party has access to food on a certain tile may not agree with the basic game loop of OD&D wilderness adventures, even if it is central to the basic game loop of Outdoor Survival. At the same time, I wonder if a hybrid approach would not be beneficial. For example, if water were a daily need while food were a weekly need, it would necessitate that the party travel close to fresh water and settlements lest they carry their own water around. Or maybe not. But it's a nice abstraction.

The main thing that prompted me to write this was some people asking why I wouldn't include a version of Outdoor Survival in my 1974 retroclone Fantastic Medieval Campaigns. My response is that FMC is an attempt to produce an extremely 'faithful' clone of the original text while preserving as many ambiguities and quirks as possible, with the ultimate goal of showing how the text produces multivarious readings and interpretations despite its author running in one particular direction afterward (especially one that was not really foreseen at the time of writing the original). OD&D does not really associate with Outdoor Survival except for what it explicitly says: borrowing its map for wilderness adventures. There is otherwise only a slight resemblance between the two rulesets, implying inspiration rather than dependence or derivation as with Chainmail. For this reason, I am not interested in reproducing the ruleset of Outdoor Survival as part of FMC, although I would encourage others to read it if only to see how—like OD&D—it seems to try to reach for something beyond itself, with a large portion of the "rules" being dedicated to real-life survival methods and strategies. An interesting read!

Edit: As Tom points out in the comments, Outdoor Survival is also likely the origin of random encounters as we would find them in OD&D! :) Though there is a certain caveat in that Outdoor Survival's random encounters relate to draining or assuaging players' resources, whereas OD&D's random encounters are combat encounters. Tells you what kind of a game it was!


  1. I'm too much of a hack to edit my old posts but I have realized I was wrong about hexes in OD&D. In fact, I probably could have made the case to put them in the OTHER category I described in that article, as an early example in the medium. That said, I'm just very pleased to see someone setting the record straight about the misconception regarding "OD&D tells you to use Outdoor Survival's rules" since that's long been a pet peeve of mine.

    1. hi dwiz, thank you (and no worries)! :) it has been a pet peeve of mine as well, i think because some people have even tried to correct me on that front and it's like -- i've been looking at this stupid booklet for two years LMAO

  2. Me and Hodag's not!LotR game uses a Tolkienian version of the Outdoor Survival game as the default map for you to populate: http://riseupcomus.blogspot.com/2022/05/tolkien-style-maps.html

    (Psst, as of right now, all the images here are broken)

    1. that map is seriously so pretty!! (are images broken for you on this page or your page?)

    2. oh! what device/browser are you using? i can see them fine using firefox + safari on iOS and firefox on windows 11, but maybe chrome has some kind of issue i can look into :)

    3. Chrome on Windows 10, yeah. Dangt!

    4. I came back to this to reread it and see if I could harvest some more ideas, and it struck me that "My response is that FMC is an attempt to produce an extremely 'faithful' clone of the original text while preserving as many ambiguities and quirks as possible, with the ultimate goal of showing how the text produces multivarious readings and interpretations despite its author running in one particular direction afterward" is one of those things that a good RPG histographer will pull out and write an entire book about when RPGs move into pure academia.

  3. Marcia, one more noteworthy thing is that Outdoor Survival seems to be the origin of the random encounter. It's done differently in D&D, sure, but you roll a d6 and consult a table. In Outdoor Survival it's entirely abstracted, giving you outcomes only (though players could make up stories to rationalize the outcomes that randomly occur). Still, the root of wandering monsters was this procedure for adding a little spice to monotonous movement routines. The relatively recent innovation of the hazard die is a little more like the Outdoor Survival procedures than OD&D's rules had it.

    1. thanks, tom! neglected to point out that specific relationship :)


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Plagiarism in Unconquered (2022)

OSR Rules Families

Bite-Sized Dungeons